In the mid-2000s I was watching more anime than I could keep track of. I’d come home, watch a one-cour show in one sitting before sleeping and have that whole behaviour on repeat until somewhere around 2007 or 2008. One of the anime series I watched like this was Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha from 2004, and while I enjoyed it a lot I never actually rewatched it since then, despite it growing in popularity and me sticking with the later seasons for quite some time.
I already introduced the concept of the Lyrical Retrospective in my last post, but since this is the real first part of my look at Nanoha proper, let me reiterate. After watching the latest entry in the franchise, ViVid Strike!, I was in a mood to go back and rewatch the series from its beginning. Because of the twelve years that had passed since my initial introduction to Nanoha I thought it’d be fun to go all out and fully take in the franchise and write down my thoughts about it.
Having now rewatched Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, the first season of the still ongoing Nanoha series, I have to say that it was criminally wrong of me to wait this long for a rewatch.
Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is a deceptive series, that’s the first thing that came to mind when I began watching the show anew. At the time of its original release it wasn’t exactly uncommon for anime to try to ride the popularity of Cardcaptor Sakura, and much like the Lyrical Toy Box short before it, this series looked to be just that. We’re introduced to Takamachi Nanoha, now played by Tamura Yukari, a third-grader who finds an injured ferret in the forest. The ferret bestows upon her Raising Heart, a magical jewel that allows her to become a mage.
The general focus of half the series is set up in a rather mundane and traditional sense. There are twenty-one jewel seeds that are causing trouble around the world, which naturally just means a local town in Japan, and it’s up to Nanoha to find and seal the seeds before they cause harm. The ferret, named Yuuno Scria, serves as her guide through her sudden new magical life. It’s by the books, or so it seems, because the moment it looks like Nanoha will be any other magical girl anime, it begins changing the rules.
Throughout the thirteen episodes of the original series we go through two massive genre shifts and have every basic fundamental rule described to us at the start taken away. The Jewel Seeds become a mere side-note, we’re introduced to the mysterious black mage Fate Testarossa, played by Mizuki Nana, who become Nanoha’s rival in her journey. Before we’re even done learning what Fate’s deal is we’re thrown into an interdimensional season of Law And Order where the suddenly introduced Time-Space Administrative Bureau (TSAB) takes the entire plot in a whole new direction.
All of this sounds jarring and messy, for sure. But the beauty of the series is that it knows exactly the pace at which to feed the viewer the next bit of information. Every change is refreshing, every plot twist immediately begins to make sense and the series never stops reflection on the characters of Nanoha and Fate and what they mean to themselves, those around them and to each other. It’s a masterpiece that, at its time, was like nothing else before it.
But praising the show is easy. There’s a reason it’s a classic that is still alive all these years later after all. What is far more interesting are the surprisingly mature and deep things it explores throughout the series. Obvious spoilers ahead, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing you’re here for deeper analysis and not a mere recommendation.
Let’s start with the characterization of Takamachi Nanoha, since she’s the titular main character. Despite being nine years old, uncommonly young for a magical girl anime protagonist, she’s remarkably mature. She’s smart, responsible and a good friend to her classmates. The moment she first becomes a mage, she admits that she’s not sure what is going on, but remains calm as Yuuno explains to her what to do. There’s no sudden panic, there’s no part where she’s being clumsy or doesn’t take things seriously. She is more adult than many adult characters, or real life individuals for that matter.
However, the series manages to have Nanoha feel natural thanks to the way she sees herself. In episode three we see her face her first true mistake as a mage. She noticed a boy carrying a jewel seed and took it for her imagination, causing a development where a big part of the city was badly damaged as a result. She blames herself for it and she’s clearly very sad, but even then she realizes that the most important part of making mistakes is owning up to them. She doesn’t falter in her sealing of the seed and she vows to never make a mistake again.
She could easily have been a character that’s too perfect to relate to, but instead she comes off as a the very incarnation of childlike innocence. She wants people to smile, for those she care about to be happy and for those who are alone to become her friend. Naive, sure, but exactly what a story like Nanoha‘s requires from its protagonist. Her being a shining beacon of hope and kindness that’s willing to do anything for her goals puts her in contrast to Fate, who I’ll be talking about in a bit.
But Nanoha still require, and have, a character arc for the series. We see her constantly grow stronger as a mage, not through the teachings of Yuuno or even the help of the TSAB, but by believing in her own courage and finding new ways to use her abilities. Every ability Nanoha uses after the first few episodes are abilities that she knows and understands because she thought them through on her own. She’s calculating how to become stronger, fitting for someone who’d later become a tactician of course.
This is why, despite a lack of experience, she’s able to match Fate in combat and eventually win in their first intentional fight. She’s not someone who wins just because the narrative demands it, she’s someone who wins because it compliments the narrative and her character. As such, while her increase in strength is something that’s notable throughout the series, it’s not her main goal as a character.
No, the main goal of Nanoha is to become friends with Fate. The girl, who would eventually become Nanoha’s wife in later canon, is her goal. From the moment they meet, all Nanoha can think about are how Fate had such beautiful eyes, yet looked so sad. She tries to talk to her, but Fate won’t listen. Eventually, even the episode introductions Nanoha gives before an episode begins become directed towards Fate and how she wants her to smile and to be her friend.
It can be seen as shallow, but Nanoha is clearly not doing this for herself. She’s doing it because she wants others to be happy, and that includes Fate. Though I’m sure it wasn’t intentional back in 2004, thanks to the eventual relationship between Nanoha and Fate developing beyond friends, to the point where they even adopted a daughter together, the series serves as a very important look into the mind of a romantically uncertain child.
As mentioned earlier, Nanoha is only nine years old, but she can feel some sort of romantic attraction to Fate despite barely knowing her. She doesn’t know what she’s feeling, she even goes as far as to meditate on her own in her family dojo just to find out why she can’t stop thinking about Fate and her beautiful eyes. This is so important when you realize how many children go through these exact thoughts every single day.
People love to claim that children are too young to know if they’re gay, bisexual, transgender or any sort of identity that clashes with a cisgender heterosexual norm. As essentially anyone who is actually a part of any such minority will tell you however, that’s not true. This goes for myself, I should add, I knew full well that I was not “like the other kids” when I was just as young as Nanoha, but I wasn’t sure just why that was. Kids will think about this and it’s very important to show that in media.
So, thanks to the positive development between Nanoha and Fate in later series, this conundrum Nanoha faces becomes even more real. She’s not just thinking about someone she wants to be friends with, she’s coming to terms with her romantic interests. Even by the end of this first season, Nanoha never wants to feel apart from Fate again. They promise they must see each other again and even exchange their ribbons they use to tie up their hair.
As an added bonus, an exchange of ribbons with a partner is also a marriage tradition among witches of Wiccan faith, making the scene of them exchanging ribbons even more important with both their roles as mages and future relationship in mind. Once again, much like Nanoha’s scenes of self-reflection being her realizing her romantic interests, this might very well not have been intentional from the writers, but you can’t change what’s already been set in stone.
As a result, Takamachi Nanoha is a character that depicts the innocent happiness and hope of a child while exploring just what it means to reflect and come to terms with your own mistakes, your identity and your goal. What might first appear to be a fairly simple character is suddenly given more depth than most, and is better for it. She’s one of the most complex and interesting nine-year olds in anime. I say one of the most, because we still have Fate Testarossa to talk about.
The character arc of Fate Testarossa is dark and cruel, to say the least. An artificial life form implanted with the memories belonging to the dead child of her mother, Precia Testarossa, tasked with finding the jewel seeds and return them to her mother with haste. We’re not initially told why her mother needs the seeds, nor who her mother is, but come episode seven things begin falling into place as Fate returns home with the jewel seeds she have gathered.
Fate is tortured by her mother, chained up and lashed at with a whip over and over, because she’s not proving effective enough. It’s graphic and uncomfortable to watch, in an obviously intentional way. Fate’s mother is one of the most horrible anime parents you’ll find, which says a lot considering how often they wind up villains. But it doesn’t stop at torturous punishment, what really makes Fate’s situation with her mother the worst is the fact that she faces gaslighting from her as well.
Fate doesn’t know her true origin, she believes she is her mother’s only daughter and that she have to do the things she does in order to have the kind mother of her memories return to her. Of course, the memories aren’t hers to begin with. On top of this, her mother constantly blames Fate for the punishment she’s issuing, calling her cruel for pushing her into doing this to her and so forth. It’s textbook child abuse that happens all over the world all the time.
It’s this strong realism that makes the scenes stand out and reach that uncomfortable level scenes like these need to reach. It’s not hard to write dark horrific scenes, but you need a firm understanding of the horrors of what you’re writing to do it well, and Nanoha has that. Every lash, every scar on Fate’s body, every shot of Fate pushing herself too far or every moment of her stating that she must do what she does because she’s her daughter stings. It stings really good.
Fate endures more pain than anyone else in the series, both mentally and physically. She seals a jewel seed with her bare hands, damaging them badly, she fights monsters and Nanoha on multiple occasions and eventually she’s defeated by Nanoha as well. Despite this, she never loses sight of her goal or the strength to stand. Not until the truth is revealed to her from the lips of her own mother.
When she’s told that she’s artificial, that the memories she have belonged to a dead girl and worst of all, that her mother hates her and only viewed her as a failed experiment, that’s when she finally cracks. She can’t stand and ultimately falls unconscious from those words alone, after all the abuse and pain she endured with her body, it was words that truly defeated and hurt her. But it was also words that ultimately healed her.
Even during her mother’s last moments, Fate tries to have her acknowledge herself as her daughter. Her mother refuses right before falling into the interdimensional rift either leading to her death or her goal, the forbidden land of Alhazrad. Fate who have spent her entire life serving her mother and living only for that purpose doesn’t know what to do until Nanoha comes to save her. Nanoha’s constant pushes for Fate to smile finally breaks through.
Fate could have easily been played off as a villain, even temporarily, but instead Nanoha never once views her as such. It’s clear from the outset that Fate is suffering and need help from someone who can offer her a warm hand to hold on to. While she serves as Nanoha’s rival for the majority of the series, she’s not given the traditional role of being one step ahead of the hero. Fate is Nanoha’s equal from the very beginning.
Sure, at their first encounter Fate has a clear upper hand from a combat perspective, but Nanoha is the one who have collected more jewel seeds at the time. As those numbers begin to even out, so does their combative skills, until they’re on equal ground. This is honestly a kind of rivalry that is rare to find in both old and new anime, making it incredibly refreshing to see even if the show is from 2004.
Fate is very much the true protagonist from a story perspective. Yes, we see the story told from Nanoha’s perspective and she’s the heroine and main character, but the one who has the largest development and key connection to the plot itself is Fate. Funnily enough, this is something that would become recurring in the Nanoha franchise, with the main character being the lesser of two when it comes to the narrative.
Another recurring thing that originated with this series and specifically the characters of Nanoha and Fate is a great deal of focus on self-reflection. In almost every calm moment you will have characters think about their situation, what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, why they’re feeling the way they feel and what they should do next. It might sound like an obvious thing, but this is something a lot of fiction tend to forget about.
Self-reflection is important both when writing fiction and when it comes to real life. The fact that Nanoha not only shows it but outright encourages it over and over as a positive development is so very important. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t taken my time to seriously stop and reflect on who I was before, and any piece of media that can encourage that, especially to kids and teenagers who will be facing so many changes, is good in my book.
In fact, I have to admit I’m a little jealous. I was definitely the right age for Nanoha when it first aired, but I think I didn’t quite think about the show as seriously as I should have back then. I think it would have done me good. Or maybe it did do me good and I just never noticed all these important little details until now. Either way, it’s a character trait that I’m glad the series stuck with and I wish more fiction would adopt from it.
Another thing more anime specifically should look towards Nanoha for is how to treat a final episode. When we reach episode thirteen, the story is mostly over. The entire episode serves as an epilogue following Nanoha readjusting to Earth life and awaiting Fate’s trial and answer to her plea for friendship. The episode, though devoid of action and actual plot development, manages to be one of the best episodes in the entire series as it gives the viewer time to breathe alongside the cast.
Too many anime are focused on ending on the most explosive moments, using far too little time to actually wrap things up at the end. It works for some, of course, there’s no specific formula you can apply to anything, but a whole lot of shows could learn from Nanoha as rarely will you see a final episode as satisfactory as this. In fact, the only one that comes to mind in recent time is, once again, ViVid Strike!, another Nanoha show.
One fun thing to note that you only realize from watching Nanoha after watching or playing Triangle Heart is the odd references within the supporting cast. Nanoha’s father, who was dead in Triangle Heart, is mentioned having had a grave injury when Nanoha was younger. This might not seem like a big deal to most viewers, but that injury is of course referencing how Nanoha’s father died in the original canon.
There’s also references to Miyuki, Nanoha’s sister, being trained in the dual katana combat style she was using in Triangle Heart and episode five even references my favourite minor characters from the OAV, Akira and Tobi, though sadly not by name. When you consider these small leftovers of what once was an erotic visual novel about body guards and hitmen, it makes sense that Nanoha would be as courageous and determined as she is, it’s in her blood.
Comparing the series to the original Lyrical Toy Box short is rather fun to do in retrospect. Very little of the original video actually survived the transition, most notably the focus on Chrono Harlaown as Nanoha’s rival and love interest instead of Fate. Yuuno, at the time unnamed, was not a ferret but seemingly a fox or a dog, Raising Heart looked more like Kinomoto Sakura’s sealing staff and Nanoha of course had a big hat as part of her standard design.
But some things actually did survive from the original short. When Lindy Harlaown takes command of the attack on Precia’s fortress in episode twelve she appears much like the fairy version of herself from Lyrical Toy Box, complete with four wings sprouting out of her back. The song Lyrical Toy Box itself is used as Nanoha’s ringtone and alarm clock throughout the series and the fact that her extended family plays a part of the first Nanoha series is also accurate to the short.
It’s funny now that there’s been a few days since I watched Triangle Heart: Sweet Songs Forever for the first time. I still find the OAV boring as hell, but thanks to the references I was able to pick up on when rewatching Nanoha I feel like maybe it was worth it after all. The references aren’t important, any connection Nanoha ever had to Triangle Heart is long gone these days after all. But the more you know, I suppose.
I feel like I could spend weeks talking about how much I appreciate having rewatched this series. From he beautiful narrative, the great characters, the focus on self-reflection and finding your own happiness to the deeper aspects like Nanoha finding her own identity or Fate declaring her independence after learning her true origin, there just isn’t anything that this series tries and fails at. It’s a true masterpiece and I promise myself that I will not wait another twelve years to revisit it again.
I want to give thanks to my good friend Kelira Telian for watching the series with me and I’m looking forward to rewatching Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’s next and see what kind of wonderful things I’ve forgotten about that show over these years.
Thank you for reading, and as always, if you have your own thoughts on Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha or this post in itself, feel free to leave a comment.
- Part 0: Triangle Heart and Lyrical Toy Box
- Part 1: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha
- Part 2: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’s
- Part 3: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS
- Part 4: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha The MOVIE 1st
- Part 5: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha The MOVIE 2nd A’s
- Part 6: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha ViVid
- Part 7: ViVid Strike! (Coming Soon… I hope!)
One thought on “Lyrical Retrospective – Part 1: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha”
Sorry but to me cardcaptor Sakura is the go to mahou shoujo and the one on how to do it right. There are so many things wrong with nanoha. The title character herself the auidence knows nothing about her besides her talent in magic what are her likes and dislikes? What’s her relationship with her family and friends? The story doesn’t care about that info all it cares about is showing how awesome she is. Not to mention. Her relationship always has to backtrack to fate forget amy chrono yuuno or arf it’s just all about fate. The jewel seeds are just “the items” that nanoha has to collect they have no impact on the story whatsoever after the first season they just disappear not even mentioned once or seen again. Unlike in cardcaptor Sakura where Sakura acts like an actual ten year old and she has a relationship with her friends, family, and community also the clow cards play a part in the story and add to sakura’s growth as a character. The only one gender thing in nanoha is dumb and just an excuse to have girlxgirl action just because. The world they live in is going to go extinct because of lack of males that cloning thing can only go so far. Cardcaptor sakura did its own thing with the story it had Clamp researched what they wanted in their story instead of copying someone else.